Posts Tagged ‘War’

the houses in between reprint society howard spring 1951 001The Houses in Between by Howard Spring ~ 1951. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1954. Hardcover. 568 pages.

My rating: After some deliberation, I cannot honestly give this less than a 10/10. This ambitious novel certainly has some flaws, but the overall reading experience, to me at this point in my life, was utterly satisfying.

A week or so ago I posted a quick teaser about this novel, and I am happy to report that it more than fulfilled its promise. It took me quite a long time to work my way through it, both because of general busy-ness in my real life, and my reluctance to rush through the book. Fine print, thin pages, and rather intense content made it crucial to be able to really concentrate; it was not a particularly “easy” read, though I did find it completely engaging.

On her third birthday, May 1, 1851, young Sarah Rainborough visits the newly-opened Crystal Palace in London, and the experience so impresses her that it becomes her earliest vivid memory, to be referenced throughout the rest of her long life.

I am not going to share many more plot details than this, as the story was most rewarding to me as I read with no prior knowledge as to where it was all going to go, and there were some surprising developments.

Written in the first person as an autobiography, with Sarah starting to record her life in her later years and the tone very much one of “looking back”, there are of course many references to future events, interweaving Sarah’s past and present and going off into short tangents here and there. Sarah’s fictional life covers ninety-nine years of a history-rich century, and though as a member of the upper middle class our narrator is cushioned from the harshest realities of her time, she is fully aware – at least in retrospect – of what is going on all around her.

The strongest part of the book to my mind was the portion regarding the Great War. The author, using his character’s voice, is bitterly sincere in condemnation of the brutal destruction of an entire generation of the best and brightest of England’s –  and Europe’s – young men, and the impact of their loss on the structure of society as a whole, and on the families and individuals left behind.

Part social commentary and part good old-fashioned family drama – Sarah’s personal life and the lives of her family members are chock full of incident, some spilling over into positive melodrama – the book is by and large very well paced and beautifully balanced between fiction and history.

Here is the author’s foreword, which tells of his intentions. I must say that I thought he pulled it off rather well.

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Howard Spring made a commendably good job of voicing his narrator; occasionally it felt a tiny bit forced, but in general he drew me in and kept me engaged. The latter chapters, covering Sarah’s extreme old age, were particularly believable, as the narrator is shown to be letting herself go a bit, both in her recording of the current phase of her life, and in her relationships to the people around her, as she deliberately eliminates strong emotional feelings regarding her descendants and looks more and more inward, preserving her energies for herself.

An author whom I shall be exploring in the future. I very much liked what he did here, though no doubt some of the appeal of this book is in that it describes the long life of a rather ordinary woman, and I am myself in a reflective mood regarding the life of my own mother, who died just over a month ago at the venerable age of eighty-nine, a decade less than our fictional Sarah’s, but still impressive, when one considers the societal changes that occurred in her (my mother’s) life as well.

Well done.

For more reviews:

The Goodreads page has several succinct and accurate reviews by readers.

Reading 1900-1950 has a detailed review, with excerpts, as well as links to reviews of several other of the author’s novels.

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I’ve just finished something of a mini-binge of World War II-era spy thrillers, with the first two of what would turn into a handsome list of espionage and suspense thrillers by Helen MacInnes.

Above Suspicion was the first, and published in 1941 in the opening moves of what was to become the prolonged agony of the Second Great War, its urgent and foreboding tone rocketed it to bestseller heights. MacInnes followed her first novel by another even more topically urgent and dark, Assignment in Brittany, in 1942.

Though definitely dated, these suspense novels are decidedly still very readable today, made even more enthralling by the fact that we know what happened in the years after, while MacInnes and her heroic characters are facing a tremendous and forbidding Great Unknown. I’m going to give brief sketches of both in two hundred word snapshots, if I can condense them so tightly – with the strong recommendation that you discover these for yourself if you feel that these might be your thing. These two novels are excellent examples of their genre, though highly dramatized and relying upon those inevitable unlikely coincidences and lucky breaks in order to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. Though neither has an ending that is neatly rounded off; the settings and times don’t allow it.

I have read Above Suspicion numerous times through the years, but Assignment in Brittany was new to me, and I was pleased at how engaging both of these were, even though in the first I knew the plot inside and out, and the second I guessed at rather successfully all of the way through, except for the rather heartrending (but ultimately optimistic) twist at the very end.

Both books were immediate bestsellers, and remain very readable – and continually in print –  almost seventy-five years after their first publication.

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“Because of the acute shortage of regular book cloth under war-time rationing, this book is bound in ‘leatherette,’ a sturdy paper fabric especially designed for this purpose.”

Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes ~ 1941. This edition: Triangle Books, 1944. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Young Oxford University don Richard Myles and his wife Frances are recruited to travel to Europe during summer break in order to discover what has happened to a possibly-compromised chain of British secret service agents. The premise being that the two are so innocent-seeming as to be able to wander at will, from agent to agent, following the links as identified at each contact. In their travels they run in and out of numerous sinister encounters; the Nazis are very much on the ascendant and their evil shadow looms over the lands the Myles visit on their journeyings.

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This dramatic vintage dust jacket illustration illustrates one of the peak moments of this suspense thriller, as the heroine is attacked by the Head Evil Nazi’s killer dog and is rescued by quick deployment of her husband’s handy-dandy sword-stick. Imminently distressing dispatch of the hound aside, isn’t this a gorgeous bit of graphic design?

A novel made most poignant by the time of writing; the last months of peacetime shadowed by foreboding clouds of war. The author draws upon personal experience in telling her tale, and it is an interesting combination of travelogue and suspense thriller, full of asides describing the scenes in which the action is set, and philosophical musings regarding the whys and wherefores of the imminent conflict. The German psyche is searchingly probed by a very British analyst – MacInnes in the guise of her heroic (and autobiographical) married couple – and found to be both blustering and chillingly focussed on military dominion.

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I am fortunate enough to be the possessor of this handsomely dust-jacketed first American edition. An absolutely stellar example of vintage cover art. Wouldn’t this make an amazing wall poster?

Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes ~ 1942. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1942. Hardcover. 373 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Martin Hearne is parachuted into Brittany, into the very forefront of the Nazi occupation, in the guise of  his French body double, Bertrand Corlay. Many surprises await Hearne, not least of which is the discovery that his predecessor was less than forthcoming about some of his own activities before his evacuation to England via the Dunkirk debacle. For instance, his pre-marital arrangement with the neighbouring farmer’s daughter, Anne, and his estrangement from his invalid mother, who keeps strictly to her own rooms in the shared household. Who is beautiful and passionately forthcoming Elise? Why do the Nazi occupiers greet “Bertrand Corlay” with warm enthusiasm, while his fellow villagers hiss in cold disgust?

An escaping American journalist sheltering in the Corlay home sets off a string of complications, most notably a dramatic trip to the medieval monastic stronghold of Mont St. Michel, situated at the end of a causeway above tidal flats of quicksand. A return to the Corlay home finds Hearne confronted by steely-eyed Teutons who have discovered their collaborator is not what he seems, in so very many ways. Will Hearne make it back to England with his meticulously written notes and maps, as well as his new-found love?

Good dramatic stuff, rather nicely plotted for its type of thing, though with an exceedingly strong reliance on Hand of Coincidence. The evil Boche are given no ground, and the resident Bretons are depicted as cunning and stubborn survivors, insular to an astounding degree, but in the main resistant to their unwelcome occupiers by a combination of sullen non-cooperation and occasional acts of secret sabotage.

An engaging period thriller, written at the time it depicts, and so a valuable snapshot of the mood and details of its moment in time as well as a very readable diversion.

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Author biography from the back cover of “Assignment in Brittany.” Check out the casual cigarette! No doubt the other hidden hand is nonchalantly holding a martini glass…

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the sun in scorpio margery sharp 001The Sun in Scorpio by Margery Sharp ~ 1965. This edition: Heinemann, 1965. Hardcover. 231 pages.

My rating: 10/10.

She does it again.

Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about Margery Sharp’s eclectic style, she pulls something new out of the hat. This is an absolutely crisp, clean and elegantly written novel, by a master of her craft, with some attention-catching stylings. I  suspect the author was enjoying herself quietly and deeply while working this out, based as it is on her memories of her childhood years in Malta.

Nice. Very, very, nice.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a few weeks now, waiting for an inspired moment to sit down and really delve into this book, but things are picking up speed in my real life and computer time for blogging is getting a bit pinched, so it’s looking like now or never. A quickie review it will have to be.

Everything sparkled.

Below the low stone wall, beyond the rocks, sun-pennies danced on the blue Mediterranean; so dazzlingly, they could be looked at only between dropped lashes. (In 1913, the pre-sunglass era, light was permitted to assault the naked eye.) Opposite, across the road called Victoria Avenue, great bolts of sunlight struck at the white stone buildings and richocheted off the windows. A puff of dust was a puff of gold-dust, an orange spilled from a basket like a wind-fall from the Hesperides…

Young Cathy Pennon, middle child of three growing up on an outpost of the grand British Empire, on the small island “next-door” to Malta, glories in the sun and basks in its rays. She is soon to leave the scene of her young years, as the growing winds of the Great War unsettle her civilian parents enough to urge a return to safer England. Cathy is soon to discover that she never will be truly warm again; the rainy isle of “Home” being resistant in its mists to the heat of that lost-and-mourned Mediterranean sun.

We follow Cathy, and to a lesser degree, her older sister Muriel and younger brother Alan, as they grow up in England, move into their adult years, and go their separate ways. Muriel is to find a comfortable niche in married domesticity; Alan settles into a happy bachelor existence while dedicating himself to the banking business – he is, ultimately tragically, of just the age to be destined to fight in the next great war – and Cathy drifts into a loosely-defined position as companion-lady’s maid to the aristocratic Lady Jean.

The book is a delicious moving picture of the years of and between the wars; our author touches delicately but succinctly on the many personalities and types of those years of tremendous flux, when the world is continually shaking itself and forming itself again as its inhabitants struggle, with various degrees of success, to come to grips with every new normal.

Cathy survives, though not without some scars, and we leave her at the end of the Second Great War poised for what looks to be the greatest change yet in her four decades of life, contemplating with wild surmise and growing joy the possibility of a return to the sun.

What a very good book this is. Margery Sharp is in absolutely fine form, having created a crisp, clean narrative with beautiful styling and more than a little cynically black ink in her accomplished pen. Cathy is a most human protagonist; full of flaws and not at all likeable a certain amount of the time; she tends to stand back a step from those around her, never fully entering in to the lives of those she bumps up against. A girl and then a woman of unexpected responses, and a few hidden talents…

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12285312The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams ~ 1949. This edition: Collins, 1949. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10.

It was January when they had first come to Stalag-Luft III, and for the whole of that month the ground was under snow. Snow lay thickly on the roofs of the barracks blocks and gave an air of gaiety to the barbed wire which sparkled and glittered in the sun. Every post carried its cap of crisp, powdery snow, and when the wind blew, the snow drifted up against the coiled wire, softening its gauntness. Escape in this weather was impossible, and when the snow stopped falling the prisoners made a bobsleigh run and cut up their bed-boards to make toboggans. They flooded the football pitch and made an ice rink on which they skated from morning until evening. The camp was pure and clean while the snow lay on the ground, and the air loud with the shouts of the skaters. It was only when the night carts came to empty the aborts that the compound became offensive, and then the air was malodorous and long yellow streaks marked the snow where the carts had been.

When the thaw came the camp was a sea of mud. The packed ice of the toboggan run was the last to melt, and the skating rink was a miniature lake on which a few enthusiasts sailed their home-made yachts. Then that dried up and the football pitch was reconditioned. The goalposts were replaced and the earth dams that had held the water were removed.

With the spring came a renewed interest in escape. Spring is the escaping season…

Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Peter Howard, shot down over Germany in 1942, is on his second prison camp. He and fellow officer John Clinton had already tunnelled out of their first camp, Oflag XXI-B, but were recaptured only a few days later. Now they are pondering the possibilities of surreptitiously leaving Stalag-Luft II, the massive internment camp purpose-built and maintained by the Luftwaffe for captured flight crews. (This officers-only camp eventually housed over 10,000 POWs. For an excellent description of Stalag-Luft III, see this extensive Wikipedia article.)

Escaping from Stalag-Luft III had so far been impossible. Built on sandy soil, with distinctly coloured subsoil making disposal of tunnelling debris extremely difficult to disguise, the camp buildings were constructed on pilings, with guard dogs patrolling the compound after dark, and a system of foot patrols and random spotlighting to prevent any prisoner activity under cover of darkness. Due to the prevalence of prisoners attempting to escape by tunnelling, microphones capable of picking up seismographic vibrations had been installed around the perimeter of the camp.

Conditions inside the camp were reputed to be among the most “lavish” in any of the German-run POW camps. Because the detainees were officers, they were not required to perform forced labour under the terms of the Geneva Convention, and were provided with regular Red Cross food and relief parcels, which included cigarettes and toiletries. Many of the POWs were taking correspondence-style university courses, and recreation opportunities within the camp – sports, theatre, music – were well organized and highly attended.

So why even try to escape, and risk being shot? Many of the captured British airmen were quite content to put up with the boredom of being interned, grateful to be in a relatively comfortable camp, but for others the idea of being held in detention was maddening. Their one focus was on getting out and away back to England, from where they could renew their active participation in the war.

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A re-creation of the vaulting horse in the 1950 movie version of the book.

Howard and Clinton come up with an ingenious plan, inspired by the traditional “Trojan Horse”, to start a tunnel close to the perimeter fence and so lessen the distance needed for excavation. They design a wooden vaulting horse, in which at first one and then later two and three men can be hidden and carried, and proceed to establish a regular routine of gymnastic exercises at their chosen tunnel head. With the cooperation and assistance of numerous fellow prisoners, the continuous vaulting, jumping, landing and related calisthenics created enough vibration that the tunneling noise was disguised from the microphones. Bags of excavated sand, made from the cut-off legs of prisoners’ pants, were hung on hooks inside the horse, to be removed and surreptitiously scattered in innocuous locations, and eventually, as it was harder to dispose off without being spotted, in the ceilings of the dormitories.

The Wooden Horse describes the escape plan in great detail, and makes fascinating reading. The ingenuity of the prisoners is admirable, as is the camp organization which coordinated escape attempts. A hidden stockpile of altered clothing, forged papers, German money and condensed food rations was assembled through various efforts, to be allotted to those who had made a plausible case to the Escape Committee.

Howard and Clinton, along with a third officer, Phillip Rowe, are the first and as it turns out, the only prisoners to successfully escape from Stalag-Luft III and to return to their home country. Every other escape attempt, of which there were many, including the famous “Great Escape”  of 1944 documented by writer Paul Brickhill, ended in recapture and, in the case of the Great Escape, execution of many of the escapees.

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Michael Codner, Oliver Philpot, and Eric Williams

In The Wooden Horse, the fictionalized version of events written by participant Eric Williams, ‘Peter Howard’ is Eric himself,  ‘John Clinton’ is Michael Codner, and ‘Philip Rowe’ is Oliver Philpot. All three men returned to active service after their return to England.

An extremely interesting book, containing as it does such intensive detail concerning life in an officers’ POW camp, and vivid descriptions of life in civilian Germany midway through the war as the men blend in with the population during their journey toward the seaport where they hope to find transport out of the country.

The story is well-told, though events here and there which are really quite dramatic are told in an offhand sort of manner, with the exception of a brutal encounter with a German guard at the very end of the narrative, which stands out by its dramatic and gory details. This incident was later revealed to be fabricated at the request of the book’s publisher, in order to “spice up” the ending. Everything else, though, appears to be quite true.

A must-read for anyone at all interested in World War II history, for its extensive detail and its business-as-usual, “sure-we-did-amazing-things-but-why-all-the-fuss?” tone, keeping that British “stiff upper lip” stereotype nicely polished. What emotion is shown is in the realistic depiction of the nerve-wracking journey across Germany and into occupied Denmark, and the stressful situation at being completely at the mercy of randomly-met strangers who may or may not be willing to pass along information or messages, and any of whom might be in collaboration with the German officials.

All in all, a good read.

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war stories gregory clarkWar Stories by Gregory Clark ~ 1964. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1968. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7700-6027-7. 171 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Born in 1892 in Toronto, Ontario, Gregory Clark was of perfect age to fight in the Great War, heading to Europe in 1916, at the age of twenty-four. Clark entered the fray as a lieutenant, and exited a major. In the trenches and out of them – Clark received the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” at Vimy Ridge – the young man remembered what he had witnessed, the horror and the gallantry and the moments of respite and delight, to be shared later with his audience of newspaper readers as he took up journalism in the post-war years.

Too old to take active part in World War II, Gregory Clark none the less went overseas once again and pushed his way into the thick of the action, fulfilling a role as a front-line war correspondent, and receiving an Order of the British Empire for his services. Again, his experiences found their way into his short, chatty periodical articles published in the following decades. Clark’s son Murray was killed in action in 1944 while serving with the Regina Rifles, but there is no mention of that personal loss here in War Stories; Clark keeps that particular emotion well buried.

War Stories contains a selection of thirty-eight anecdotes, three to five pages in length, about a wide array of Gregory Clark’s personal experiences. Though the tone throughout  is upbeat and frequently humorous – War Stories won the Leacock award for humour in 1965, which rather surprises me, for funny as these anecdotes sometimes are, there is a sombre tone always present – Clark makes it very clear what his opinions are as to the brutality of what the soldiers and civilians went through.

These stories laud the bravery (and the frequent giddy foolishness) of the farm boys and office clerks and travelling salesmen who find themselves caught up in circumstances beyond their most vivid nightmares, fated to kill and, frequently, be horribly maimed, and wastefully killed, merely because of the circumstance of the time of their birth. Something I noticed is that there is not much sympathy shown here for the soldiers of the “other side”; Clark’s thoughts are ever for his own, and he was reportedly a fiercely protective officer of the men under his charge.

All is not muck and death and destruction though. Interludes of inactivity brought forth pranks and hi-jinks, while there were times of repose behind the lines, time for memorable meals and quiet conversation, and musings on what was going to come after, if there was going to be an after.

An appropriate book for this Remembrance Day weekend, this time of sober reflection. Clark reports the realities, but he persists as well in highlighting the lighter moments, the bits of sanity in a world of war.

A good read.

And a much more eloquent review of this book, well worth a click-over, may be found at Canus Humorous.

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Three unrelated novels which share the common theme of adolescent girls coping as best they can with circumstances beyond their control. Frost in May and The World My Wilderness are undeniably much stronger and deeper novels than In Spite of All Terror, which, though competently written, fits more appropriately into the “juvenile historical fiction” category, but I’ve grouped them together here.

frost in may antonia whiteFrost in May by Antonia White ~ 1933.

This edition: Virago, 1981. Introduction by Elizabeth Bowen, 1948. Softcover. ISBN: 0-919630-36-7. 221 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I have known Antonia White as the gifted translator of a number of Colette’s novels, but I hadn’t realized she was an author in her own right until Frost in May crossed my path in an always-worth-examining green-covered Virago edition.

The novel is autobiographical fiction, based on the author’s childhood experiences attending convent school, and was the first in an eventual series of four books following the same character from her ninth through twenty-third year. Following Frost in May are The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House, and Beyond the Glass, and together they give an account of Antonia White’s formative years, and the emotional turmoil which shaped her adult life. The “transgression” in Frost in May which resulted in the fictional Nanda being expelled from convent school is a genuine event, and the real Antonia was marked for life by it.

It is 1908, and nine-year-old Fernanda – Nanda – Grey is being sent to The Convent of the Five Wounds in London in order to immerse her fully in her new life as a dedicated Catholic child; her father’s conversion several years earlier and his fervent seeking after ways to prove his devotion to his new faith have overflowed into Nanda’s life. She worships her father and seeks to please him in every detail of her life, and though she is understandably wary of this new experience, she is prepared to embrace her life among the nuns with eager dedication, as much for his sake as for her own.

Her experience at first is beyond strange to her; being in some ways better than she had anticipated, but also frequently much more harsh. The strict hierarchy of boarding school life is exacerbated by the dictatorial conduct of the nuns. A few are gentle and benign, though even in the kindest the stern core of duty prevents too much softness from showing, several are judgemental, demanding, and deeply sarcastic, seeming to set their young charges up for continual failure, all in aid of “breaking their worldly spirit” in order to prepare them to fully bow down to God.

Nanda tries her best to fit into this new culture, and gets along quite well, though she is continually haunted by feelings of deep inadequacy, both because of her lowly status as a mere convert to the faith rather than a “born” Roman Catholic, and because of her lack of social status among the many wealthy and aristocratic students.

As the years go by, Nanda makes several close friends, though the nuns forbid “particular friendships”, and is well on her way to forming her own ideas as to her adopted religion and her personal relationship with it, when a tragic misunderstanding loses her both her place in the convent community and the love and respect of her adored father.

The novel is a cutting exposé of the hypocrisies of several of the main characters, including Nanda’s demanding father, and her vaguely inefficient mother, and the effect of those hypocrisies on the sensitive and deeply feeling Nanda. She faithfully seeks to please her superiors and to adapt to their wishes and demands, while continually mulling over her own place in the world, and the contradictions she observes.

Very well written, and provides a fascinating account of life in a particular type of convent school. Suitable for competent youthful readers, perhaps early teens and older, but definitely would be most appreciated by those old enough to look back on their own formative years and relate Nanda’s experiences to their own.

the world my wilderness dj rose macaulayThe World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay ~ 1950.

This edition: Collins, 1950. Hardcover. 253 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This fabulous novel deserves more than the rudimentary review I am giving it here; I do believe it is one of the most beautifully written of all I’ve read so far this year. Rose Macaulay lets herself go with lushly vivid descriptions of the world just after the war. The bombed-our ruins of London are depicted in detailed clarity, and almost take precedence over the activities of the human characters, who move through their devastated physical habitat in a state of dazed shock from the brutalities they have seen and survived.

This is a bleakly realistic depiction of the aftermath of World War II and its effect on an expatriate teenager and her divided family, split between France and England. It moved me deeply, though the characters frequently acted in obviously fictional ways. What the author has to say about the effects of war on those who survived it is believably real.

17-year-old Barbary Denison is an English girl who has been raised for many years in France under the custody of her divorced mother and French stepfather. Under the confusion of the German Occupation, Barbary has run wild and has not-so-secretly joined up with an adolescent branch of the resistance – she and her younger half-brother have lived the lives of semi-feral children, and have witnessed and taken part in activities much too old for their tender years. After the war ends, Barbary’s stepfather is mysteriously drowned in the ocean near the family villa; possibly in retaliation for his unenthusiastic but undeniable cooperation with the Germans. Barbary’s mother, a hedonistic artist much more in love with her second husband than anyone fully realizes, emotionally draws away from her children, though Barbary in particular worships her mother with fervent dedication. When it is suggested that Barbary return to England to live with her father, her mother acquiesces with what seems like relief.

The culture shock which Barbary faces in post-war London society is sudden and severe. Her upper-class father has remarried and has a young son; Barbary views her stepmother with scorn and refuses to take any sort of interest in her younger half-brother. Her aunt and cousins are at first amused at her brusqueness and mildly sympathetic – they too have suffered in the war – but Barbary’s sullen refusal to adapt soon turns sympathy into bare tolerance. Barbary falls in with a group of young men who are living a precarious life amongst the bombed-out houses; they survive by petty thefts and view the London police as bitter enemies to be evaded at every turn. Barbary finds in this ragged outlaw world an echo of her wartime life in France, and she enters into a tenuous relationship with these new companions, hiding her activities from her father under guise of studying at the Slade School of Art. He in turn is unwilling to dig too deeply into his daughter’s private life, feeling that giving her space and time will ultimately win her affection.

Tragedy strikes, and Barbary is found out; the consequences of her double life and the bringing together of her estranged parents lead to unexpected revelations, though the reader has had inklings all along of secrets too terrible to be told.

I’ve described this novel as “bleak”, but don’t let that put you off. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is in fine working order here. If you liked Crewe Train, or The Towers of Trebizond (which I’ve just finished – very good indeed!) you will be thrilled with The World My Wilderness.

in spite of all terror hester burton 001In Spite of All Terror by Hester Burton ~ 1968.

This edition: Oxford University Press, 1970. Softcover. ISBN: 19-272011-2. 150 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This next novel is a slight thing compared to the two that preceded it in this post, but it has its merits as well, as a piece of memorable historical fiction. The author has based the story on her own recollections of 1940, when she was a was a 27-year-old Oxford-educated school teacher watching the evacuation of thousands of schoolchildren to the English countryside in preparation for the anticipated bombing of London.

Child of the slums, orphaned fifteen-year-old Liz Hawtin is a scholarship student at a girls’ grammar school; her evacuation in 1939 to the village of Chiddingford is a welcome development, as it spells her escape from the cold and critical aunt who has reluctantly taken on her sister-in-law’s child.

Taken into an aristocratic family, Liz realizes that her own intellectual ability, which is seen as so superior and is so deeply resented by Aunt Ag back in Nile Street, is no more than mediocre compared to the standard set by the intellectual and accomplished Bruton family. Recovering from that humbling hit to her self-esteem, Liz slowly becomes an accepted and valued member of the family, and gains self-confidence and renewed ambition as she is introduced to the greater world beyond her narrow London bounds.

The climactic event of the novel is the evacuation of the Dunkirk soldiers, which Liz experiences from the English side of the Channel. The episodes concerning Dunkirk from the viewpoint of one of the Bruton sons, and descriptions of the Blitz in London are what makes this slightly clichéd book stand out; the scenes are well-described and memorable.

Reading this book, I realize yet again what a wonderful thing well-written juvenile historical fiction can be. For though we all know the basic facts of events such as Dunkirk, it is the creative retellings we read in the impressionable days of our youth which bring so many of these events to life, opening up our minds to future exploration of history both through “adult” fiction and through first person accounts which perhaps are a bit too frank and detailed for a youthful audience.

I also appreciated the author’s refusal to neatly tidy up Liz’s story at the end of the book; we see her poised at the start of the next year in her life, on New Year’s Eve on the brink of 1941, knowing full well that what comes next may be far more challenging than the year she has just come through.

Hester Burton wrote eighteen novels, mostly historical fiction for youth, and she was noted for her meticulous research and her undeniable story-telling abilities. In Spite of All Terror was her sixth book. A vintage author to keep an eye out for if you have history-savvy teens, and for yourself as well. This was a fast read at only 150 pages, but despite its not-too-bothersome flaws (it was a bit too neat and tidy on occasion) it kept me interested all the way through, with abundant period detail adding value to the tale.

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Here are a few more catch-up reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the elegance of the hedgehog muriel barberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery ~ 2006

This edition: Europa, 2008. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-9833372-60-0. 325 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I was moved to read this bestseller by the recommendations of respected fellow bloggers; sadly I cannot recall exactly who those were at this point in time! But to them I must say, “Thank you.”  For this was indeed a charming story.

In an exclusive Paris apartment building there dwells, upstairs, a snobbish upper-class family: mother, father, and two daughters. The youngest of the girls, twelve-year-old Paloma, is a strangely precocious child, given to thoughts well beyond her years. In her diary, which makes up half of the book, we learn that she is seriously disillusioned with life, and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, unless something occurs to give her faith in the value of existence.

Downstairs is the stout, plain, elderly, and very obviously unintelligent concierge, Renée. Renée stumps around brusquely carrying out the tenants’ orders; she is blatantly uninterested in improving herself, and she carries out her duties with a sullen disrespect for her “betters”. Hers is the other half of the narrative.

Needless to say, for this novel follows the tried and true formula of loners uniting against the bitter world, Paloma and Renée find each other, and a friendship forms between the two social outcasts, who are soon joined by a third, new tenant Ozu, a wealthy Japanese businessman. And it will come as no surprise to readers that Renée is hiding an interior of the purest gold behind her prickly spikes – for she is indeed the hedgehog of the title, a creature of secret refinement, “deceptively indolent, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant”.

Predictably, tragedy does indeed strike, but from an unexpected direction.

There is also a cat.

Need I say more?

god grew tired of us john bul dauGod Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau & Michael Sweeney ~ 2008

This edition: National Geographic, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4262-0212-4. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

In 1987 a young Sudanese teenager was forced out of his home by a brutal raid on his village. What followed was a barefoot 1,000 mile trek through Sudan, Ethiopia, and eventually to Kenya, to a haven in a refugee camp. There John Bul Dau joined thousands of other displaced children, the “Lost Boys” of the Sudanese civil war.

Having no way of knowing the fate of his left-behind, possibly slaughtered family, John eventually immigrated to the United States, where he worked tirelessly to educate himself, all the while striving to raise awareness of the tribulations he himself went through, and to bring assistance to those still suffering from the aftermath of the war back in Sudan.

This book and its associated National Geographic film eloquently describe the situation. An earnest and strongly emotional memoir.

through the narrow gate karen armstrong 001Through the Narrow Gate: a memoir of life in and out of the convent by Karen Armstrong ~ 1981

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2005. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97709-X. 350 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Intriguing and occasionally bitter memoir of an ex-nun.

In 1962 Karen Armstrong, just seventeen, and child of a not particularly religious family, entered a Roman Catholic convent as a postulant, with the aim of becoming a nun. Seven years later, while attending Oxford under the sponsorship of her order (Armstrong was in training to become a teacher-nun) she realized that she had lost her faith, and she returned fully to the secular world.

Since then, Karen Armstrong has become well known for her writings on religion, and for her outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church’s more archaic practices, and of the confusion brought about by the mandated reforms of Vatican II.

This book, Armstrong’s first, is compelling reading. A very articulate writer.

The Guardian – Profile: Karen Armstrong is well worth reading if you are curious about this now high-profile public character; it references Through the Narrow Gate near the end of the article, with an amusing anecdote from Karen’s sister telling of how the family, after dropping Karen off at the convent for her entrance into her religious life, then went on to watch a production of The Sound of Music. That same sort of dark humour and willingness to smile at oneself is evident in places in this memoir, to leaven its more serious passages.

Sstarting out in the afternoon jill fraynetarting Out in the Afternoon by Jill Frayne ~ 2003

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-679311-881. 256 pages.

My rating: 4/10

This is an autobiographical memoir of the author’s mid-life crisis, and of the solace she sought and found in communing with nature.

A solo road trip, hiking, biking, camping, sea kayaking and such all help to salve Jill Frayne’s inner pain at the dual blow of both the break up of her long-term romantic relationship back in Ontario, and the moving away of her young adult daughter. Once she begins to gain a degree of competence in her new pursuits, and to feel herself physically comfortable in nature, Frayne begins a deeper exploration of her own emotions.

While I’m sure that this was a marvelous thing for Jill Frayne herself, but sadly I had trouble relating to her angsty navel-gazing, and I felt more and more like I was reading a very private diary. I eventually lost patience with the “me-me-ME” of the author’s inner dialogue; it coloured my reaction to the book as a whole.

I certainly admire the author’s courage as a woman alone going off into challenging territory by herself, and I would have enjoyed this more it had spent more time on the scenery and nuts and bolts of solo travel, and less on the touchy feely bits. But that’s just me; others may embrace the personal narrative and find meaning there which resonates with their own lives.

Back story: the author had an almost fatal accident several years before she set off on her trip; she had been told she would never walk again. She proved everyone wrong. Extra kudos to her, and I do hope the writing of this very personal book brought her comfort and much-needed inner peace.

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